Jan Allen reflects on her career at the Agnes gallery

Campus gallery’s creative director enters retirement

Jan Allen reflects on her career.
Photo by Tim Forbes

After 27 years working at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Jan Allen, creative director of the on-campus gallery, is retiring.

As of Dec. 2019, her retirement was official, but Allen is still working on fully phasing out of her position.

In the meantime, wrapping up loose ends prevent her from fully leaving the Agnes behind just yet—this interview with The Journal being one of them.

Allen’s career at Queen’s started long before her employment at the Agnes. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in history in ’86, then her Bachelor of Fine Arts in ’90, and her Master’s degree in art history in ’92. Also in ’92, Allen was hired on as the Agnes’ associate curator.

Her first experience curating an art exhibit was when she was a student at Lorne Park Secondary School in Mississauga.

“I was an art student in high school that was obsessed with art and spent all my time in the art area any time I could,” Allen told The Journal. “[Curating an exhibit] was an idea I had and I had some fantastic teachers that were encouraging.”

Allen says she felt that the great art being made in her high school deserved an audience. With the help of her teachers, she curated her very first art exhibit.

“I didn’t really understand how perfect it would be for me as a career until a little bit later in life,” Allen said.

As an artist herself, she has a deep appreciation for the creative process. Her own artistic focus is sculpting, though it’s a practice she’s sidelined in recent years due to the demanding nature of her role as gallery director.

Even though she wasn’t working on her art regularly throughout her career at the Agnes, Allen believes it helped her give others insight into what drove her work as director.

“I think people are very interested in that, and I think it helps people to understand my work and my approach to my work,” Allen said.

“A lot of people who work in galleries at large, including the Agnes, have backgrounds as practicing artists. They’re bringing that creative training into that role.”

Allen has spent most of her career as a curator of contemporary art. She was promoted to chief curator at the Agnes in 2007, then acting director in 2012, and officially took on her role as director in 2014.

“When the opportunity to become director arose, I was well-positioned to take it on. I had lots of ideas that I wanted to try to achieve in that role.”

One goal was to reach a larger audience. Again, Allen knew that the great art hanging in the Agnes deserved to be seen and appreciated. 

Throughout her time at the gallery, she accomplished this goal. The Agnes’ funding almost doubled while she was the director. She attributes this to the gallery staff’s hard work and initiatives to increase attendance.

They spearheaded a new community outreach initiative to email out a weekly newsletter, and they continue to welcome new exhibits every semester. When attendance increased, their funding followed suit.

Looking back at her career, one of the most exciting exhibits that Allen remembers was called Machine Life in 2004.

It featured breaking-edge robotic works of art by Norman White and his students. White is a pioneer of electronic artworks, and this exhibit attracted crowds in droves.

“It drew completely new audiences because of the robotic nature of the works of art. We had lots of families coming and kids that were really fascinated by that, but also engineering students,” Allen said.

“That was really fun, and I think [it was] an important contribution to the scholarship around the development of electronic arts.”

Heading into her retirement, Allen says she’s still thinking about ways to continue her artistic research in her everyday life, though she has no doubt that art will still play an integral part in her life.

“I’ll miss working so closely with the artists, and of course, the people that I encountered and worked with at the gallery who were just fantastic,” Allen said.

“I also really loved being around and working with students. That’s something that’s harder to replace, so I’ll have to think about it in my next phase of life.”

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